Dan's Blog

January 31, 2010

what about Educational eBooks?

Filed under: eBooks,Volleyball — ddswanson01 @ 8:48 pm

I’ve been involved with online course management systems (Blackboard, WebCT, etc) since the mid 90s.  My company designed 4 of our own, the first one never made it off the drawing board, the second one (ExchangeSpace) was very simple; it mostly automated the exchange of documents between instructor and students.  The third one, eduSpace, was the real thing, a totally proprietary system for online homework, and it ran for two years before we decided to stop competing with Blackboard, WebCT and eCollege, and developed Eduspace Powered by Blackboard – which was Blackboard with a proprietary building block that let us run proprietary applications in Blackboard that were designed to facilitate homework.  I was the user administrator for Eduspace for 4 years; taught instructors, students, Sales Reps and Product Managers how to use it, resolved instructor issues – so I have a lot of experience with how online course management systems are used in colleges.  So what’s that got to do with eBooks?

Almost everyone uses an online course management system now, and publishers are now building eBooks that live in the OCMS or that can interact with it.  I find the eBook concept exciting, and I would love to be associated with eBooks for the rest of my working career or until the Singularity, whichever comes first.  What makes an eBook useful in an OCMS? Let’s talk about online eBooks that are password protected.  Perhaps actually embedded in your OCMS or on another site – but integrated with the OCMS to a lesser or greater extent, as opposed to downloaded eBooks or eBooks on disks…

There’s homework… When I was in school, we didn’t have personal computers, and the homework assignment was usually something like, ‘Do the odd problems in Chapter 4’.  That was OK if you had the book.  How nice if the instructor can say ‘Do the odd problems in Chapter 4’ and you open the eBook, from wherever you are, and there are those problems.  They should be algorithmic, so me and my roommate, working on the same assignment at adjacent desks, don’t see the same questions, though the type of the question and the difficulty are similar.  And even better, they are attached to the gradebook, so the instructor doesn’t have to collect them, grade them, enter the grade in the gradebook and then turn them back to you.  If the problems are tagged correctly, you should be able to go to the page(s) in the book that tells you how to solve that type of problem.  And if you still don’t get it, direct links from within the eBook to a video and to an online tutoring service.

There’s studying… Reading the eBook wherever you happen to have access, it can provide you with example problems of every type, and if they are algorithmic, you can work them over and over again until you get them right.  And you have immediate access to interactive teaching tools, videos, animations, simulations, if you have problems with a concept. For the instructor, perhaps your progress can be monitored in some way, and the areas where you and your fellow students are having problems can be highlighted for additional instruction.

There’s convenience… many instructors don’t teach the whole book, and in fact, would rather the whole book didn’t have the chapters they don’t teach.  With an eBook, it should be possible to hide these chapters so they don’t distract anyone – but, on the other hand, students who want to study these chapters should be able to access them.  And there are a lot of instructors who would like to teach out of two or more books.  With eBooks, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to pick chapters from several books and make them available in a single eBook.

There could be a tool that allows the instructor to add course notes to the eBook; to highlight sections in eBook before class even begins, to add post-it notes, for the entire class and perhaps for individual students.  And how about a way for the instructor to add links right to the eBook?

The issue for me with this kind of eBook is availability after the course ends.  To some people this isn’t an issue, but I used some of my schoolbooks for several years after I got out of school.  This issue could be overcome with a DVD with a limited feature set, perhaps created individually for each student at the end of the course, so you get to keep all your notes and customizations…

Surely instructors and students have ideas for making eBooks more useful.  And there must be other services that could be designed to complement eBooks.  That’s what I’d like to do!

January 29, 2010

Some thoughts about the future of publishing

Filed under: publishing — ddswanson01 @ 9:58 am

I’ve been in Educational Publishing since 1994, involved in the digital products side ( software, eBooks, websites, online learning products, Web portals, etc).  I love books, I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember, and being in Educational Publishing has been a thrill for me.  I’m currently looking for a new positiion, and I’m hoping to remain in publishing and remain associated with eBooks.  The future of eBooks is still wide open and an exciting field, but eBooks pose an important question to publishers – how can publishers stay in business in the future?  Even today, almost anyone with Web access can publish an eBook.  Are publishers doomed to become little more than online bookstores?  And for publishers’ consumers, the readers, the task is going to be, ‘with literally millions of self-published titles to choose from, how do I determine what eBooks are worth reading?’.

I think that in one sense, at least one of the current roles that distinguish publishers will continue to be important.  In order to find valuable content, readers will look for the names of publishers they know, whose brands promise high quality content.  But that promise won’t be enough; if similar content of similar quality is available elsewhere, and it will be, what else can the publisher offer to customers to influence the decision?  That’s the kind of question I’m interested in, and I’m going to try to investigate that question here.

There’s another group to consider as well, and that’s authors.  The author’s brand can be equally as important as the publisher’s brand, in some cases maybe more so.  I’ve followed a number of authors when they left one publisher and moved to another; I’ve also picked up new authors because of the company that published them.  There are some very famous authors who have found that they make more money ‘self publishing’ that they do with their traditional publishers.  How to retain quality authors and find new ones is another puzzle publishers are going to have to solve.

These are heavy issues for publishers to address.  Many publishers have been in business for hundreds of years, and they are experts at making high quality books.  They know in advance everything that will have to be done from reviewing manuscripts to signing and working with authors to printing to distribution, how much it will cost, to what kind of marketing – every little detail.  It’s difficult to change such a complex set of interrelated and effective processes.

So what can I contribute to this process?  I hope I can make some useful observations and suggestions.  We’ll see!

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